Sadly, my maternal grandparents died before I was born. I never had the opportunity to meet them or to feel their presence. I look at photographs of people I have never met and softly touch their faces, wondering how we would have connected, what our memories would have been had they ever existed.
My paternal grandparents are a physical presence in my memory, I remember them clearly and know that I loved them in the way that grandkids do, leaning on them as the creators of everything. They died when I was eight and nine but I keep the memories alive with regular visits to their graves on Rathlin.
This is how we have traditionally remembered people. My first grandson, who would have been three this month had he still been with us, is always in my thoughts. There are photos, but it’s too difficult to look at them too often. Instead, we remember in that physical, traditional way. We made a swing out of oak, a tree that holds memories like fragile glass in its enriched leaves, and we cemented its contrasting floating stability, the swing pushing against the sky like branches stretching into the sun, with a plaque holding his name and date of birth, an irony given it is something we will never forget.
My conception of remembrance, however, was challenged this morning when I read a beautifully, sad, article in the Guardian: Online Legacy; what happens to my late husband’s digital life now he’s gone.
Caroline Twigg‘s husband died from a brain tumour at just 33 years of age. Her grief has been compounded by his ongoing digital existence, on Facebook, in emails, on a website, in video messages; by all accounts he continues to live in a very real but untouchable way. He exists beyond the capacity of her world. A new world stands like a guard between them both, keeping them apart; forever apart.
“these days, people die a digital death alongside their physical one, which creates a whole new world of admin that didn’t pass the radar of grieving widows 50 years ago. Those 20th-century widows would have had a box of love letters and a few hard copy photos; I have Facebook messages, professional videos on YouTube, personal videos on my iPhone, email histories, recorded Skype chats, WhatsApp conversations, text messages and digital photos – photos galore.”
It is something that will probably affect all of us at various levels – I have umpteen social media accounts that will die and yet live in some kind of weird perpetuity after I am gone; Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc. It’s a stark thought, and given the level of interaction I have had on Twitter since posting the article, our digital afterlife is troubling us.
How do we deal with this new, non-traditional remembrance? Do we embrace it, and harness our memories on a public platform or do we crawl into ourselves and find comfort in a stone, a tree or a swing? Everyone will have their own preference, now that we have been encouraged to think about it.
Caroline goes on to say:
“So, after I put my phone aside each evening and disconnect myself from my online communities, the moment just after my head hits the pillow is when the reality of my sadness becomes so stark. The moment I go from being exhausted to somehow feeling wide awake, when I feel so, so solo. I look over at Iain’s side of the bed and just his picture grins back at me. I poke my toe over the cold sheet and I wonder how it can be that he was right there, and now he’s not. I think about friends in their homes, with their favourite people breathing quietly beside them. I think of people listening out for babies in other rooms. For their children stirring. I want to say, “Imagine none of those people are in your house now, imagine that silence. And imagine it’s for always.” That’s how alone it feels.”
The digital presence might be intense in the weight of its existence but it does little, or indeed nothing, to ease the all-consuming pain of death.